I actually don’t think the Rittenhouse verdict is more of the same. I think it’s something new that’s new because it revitalized something old. And, in that, in its own way, more of the same in the worst possible ways.
White Power, Free as Fuck (as his gesture and t-shirt put it).
More on that in a minute.
If I can back up a bit – the scholar (and more) in me got frustrated when racial disparities in COVID-19 infections and deaths got described as necropolitics. That was biopolitics through and through, an almost boringly clear textbook example really, and the difference makes a difference. It’s a distinction that starts and structures Mbembe’s essay and each describes very different things. Necropolitics is not “that people die as a result” just as biopolitics is not “how people live.” In fact, it’s almost the opposite. And it’s not the case that “necropolitics” is about bad things and “biopolitics” is about less bad things. They are descriptive concepts, not adjectives, which for me is a really crucial thing. Biopolitical practices are not less terrifying than necropolitical practices, though the words definitely feel different.
This is not just a scholarly John fussy thing.
And you can just read Mbembe’s essay for the distinction and why it matters.
The reason the distinction matters (to me, but also generally) is because of the importance of the specific dynamic “necropolitics” describes: the production of a killable class that sustains, in tandem with the creation of a killing class, contemporary notions of sovereignty. If biopolitics is (at minimum) the management of who lives and how and under what conditions, then necropolitics is about the management of sovereignty around states of exception: who can be killed with impunity and whose sovereignty is made possible through the production of a killable population and the execution of fatal violence.
That’s what is at work in this fucking awful Rittenhouse case.
He’s white and murdered two white people, injured another. “Self-defense” is both a proper window into what’s going on, I think, and also not particularly clarifying.
What “self” was being defended? No one can seriously claim he was afraid he’d die. And his defense of self did not begin and end with getting knocked down and threatened with a skateboard. That’s the whole point and why the right (and most of white people in the U.S.) were obsessed with photos of him cleaning graffiti off the wall or some vague hand wave at protecting businesses. It was his personal, as a white person, and our nation’s very notion of sovereignty that was at stake in Kenosha’s (and all other) racial justice protest. Sovereignty was at stake *in principle*, not just (if at all) personally. That is – and this is a hard truth, I think – white sovereignty can’t survive the idea that Black lives matter. To make such lives matter is to contest the centerpieces of necropolitical practice: Black people are a killable population and exercising the right to do that killing, defending the right to do that when needed (the white political self of self-defense, defense of one’s state of exception) is imperative.
The fact that this double sense of self-defense worked and led to a finding of innocent on all charges is, in my view, the content of the trope “the legal system working as it was designed.” So, in that sense, I actually do think this is more of the same.
But he killed two white people and intended to kill a third. That’s a different sense of a killable population, a shift in the state of exception.
Something new, something old. It’s a plain case of the fear of racial contagion, that by simply being near or in some sympathy with the lives of Black people, white people are fundamentally changed. Not just holding different beliefs or opinions, but, more radically and as if by blood magic, becoming a different kind of person and citizen – contaminated, transformed, and now killable too. This is an old-fashioned race-traitor, *slur*-lover mentality by whites, retrieved no doubt out of the emerging anxiety around “white genocide” and other right-wing, increasingly white-mainstream, fears. I can’t remember ever seeing it so boldly articulated in public, in my lifetime.
This really has me re-thinking or re-assessing the ease with which our nation accepts the mass murder of school children. It’s like the demographic shifts in the nation – or at least white panic about those shifts, however real or mythical they are – have set in motion a deep, committed effort to expand the killable class in order to maintain our traditional sense of sovereignty no matter what. Perhaps those children became more and more disposable because of whatever the right called then what they now call “critical race theory.” A result is how the second amendment has become a full, unmediated icon: saturated with religious meaning, rendering completely insignificant those other things like speech, assembly, religion, the franchise…the list goes on and on. Sovereignty in a necropolitical order, period. Sustained by our god the second amendment. Nothing else.
It’s just more blood overflowing the already massive blood in our history’s streets. The other rising sea level: more and more bleeding to remain our very worst selves as a nation.